International Vegetarian Union (IVU)
IVU logo 35th World Vegetarian Congress
'Food for all our futures'

Heriot Watt University, Edinburgh, Scotland
July 8-14, 2002
Hosted by

The Vegetarian Society
of the United Kingdom

The International Vegetarian Congress:
The highlight of National Vegetarian Week 2002

By Jane Bowler (editor of The Vegetarian - VSUK magazine)

Saturday: essential health issues

Saturday's key theme was 'vegetarianism and health', and I resolved to attend some important presentations about vegetarian and vegan nutrition. Dr Ruth Heidrich's talk, entitled The Calcium Deficiency Myth, was a must, as I wanted to know more about osteoporosis. Ruth is a phenomenon - diagnosed with breast cancer in her late '40s, she chose to join a clinical trial which required her to go vegan overnight. She attributes her recovery to her diet, and has now been vegan for 20 years. Ruth is a dedicated marathon runner and triathlon athlete, and now has a collection of some 700 first place medals! Apart from her commitment to the vegan diet, the key message in Ruth's presentation was that it is essential to exercise in order to maintain bone strength. Just as eating protein does not mean your muscles automatically get stronger, so eating calcium doesn't automatically mean that your bones get stronger Ruth advocated running as a means of strengthening the bones in the legs, hips and spine, and weight-bearing exercise for the arms and wrists. Amazingly, over the last 20 years, during which time she has eaten a purely vegan diet and experienced the menopause, Ruth's bone density has actually increased.

I couldn't miss Rose Elliot's first cookery demonstration, entitled 'quick and easy after-work cooking' - ideal for me! Rose proved to be a very entertaining chef, and reminded us all that it doesn't take long to rustle up good, nutritious vegetarian fare, by simultaneously boiling up some brown rice, roasting some Mediterranean vegetables, simmering a lentil dhal and whizzing up some hummus! I couldn't leave without sampling a spicy muffin, from a batch made (slightly experimentallyl) without eggs or dairy produce. Rose used soya flour as an egg replacement, sweetened the mixture with nutritious black treacle, and in the absence of ground ginger, substituted fresh, grated ginger, which proved a winning combination.

It was time to hurry back to the auditorium for one of the most important presentations of the week. Paul Appleby's lecture on the long-term health of Western vegetarians was absolutely packed with statistics - not surprising, as Paul is Senior Statistician with Cancer Research UK as well as Secretary of Oxford Vegetarians and a past council member of both the Vegetarian and Vegan Societies. Paul's statistical analysis of five studies in the UK, Europe and America, considered in detail the effect of our diet on our life-span, and on the likelihood that we will develop health problems such as heart disease, cancer and diabetes. I will not attempt to cover all the statistics Paul presented, and the text and slides he used for the talk are available at

However, it was quite surprising to realise that only in recent years have we begun to understand the effect of a vegetarian diet on our long-term health. There is plenty of anecdotal evidence about vegetarians who have lived long and healthy lives, but when you consider that, to be reliable, a study has to take thousands of vegetarians, and follow them through their lives until death, it is obvious that these things take time!

As expected, Paul showed that eating meat has been linked to heart disease, and this is the main area in which a vegetarian diet does seem to confer long-term benefits. Overall, vegetarians tend to have lower blood pressure, lower blood cholesterol and are less likely to be overweight than the general population. One study concluded that the number of women who die from breast cancer is significantly higher in the vegetarian population - Paul speculated that this may be due to the fact that vegetarian women are more likely than the general population not to have children, and childbearing has a protective effect against breast cancer. One study, mainly based on the Seventh Day Adventist population in California, found that vegetarians on average live 1.5 to 2 years longer than their counterparts. Paul suggested that the vegetarian population in this study were generally non-smokers, with a relatively high socio-economic status, who exercised regularly and were not generally overweight. However, Paul's wider analysis of all the main studies carried out on vegetarians and non-vegetarians since the 1950s revealed that there is no significant difference in life-span between vegetarians and non-vegetarians.

At the plenary session, Ruth Heidrich again impressed us all with her incredible fitness level. She told us that we are ambassadors for a vegetarian/vegan diet - by showing ourselves to be healthy and full of vitality, we can get people to say 'I'll have what she's having!'

We ended the Congress in style with a completely vegan Gala Dinner, and dancing to a Ceilidh band. Congratulations to Tina, on her election as the new Chair of the International Vegetarian Union!